It is profoundly sad watching Gil Scott-Heron in his prime, knowing how terribly he would struggle with drugs in his later years. Of course, the gifted artist who sabotaged a potentially long and fruitful career through substance abuse is one of the oldest stories in jazz. However, Scott-Heron was supposed to be the heir to Oscar Brown, Jr., shining a light on the nation’s urban pathologies with his socially conscious lyrics. Instead, he was largely undone by the very dangers and malaise he decried. Happily, it is the forceful Scott-Heron music documentarian Robert Mugge captured in performance at a DC club and pontificating on the streets of the capitol in Gil Scott-Heron: Black Wax (trailer here), which releases today on DVD as part of MVD’s Mugge reissue program.
Many consider Scott-Heron the forefather of rap, but his concert at the Black Wax club is very much in a jazz bag, albeit a decidedly funky one, thanks to the bluesy guitar work of Ed Brady and a swinging horn line featuring Ron Holloway. Even though Scott-Heron has plenty to say, he and his band definitely keep everyone’s toes tapping. If only all protest songs were as groovy as “Johannesburg.”
You can better see why Scott-Heron is considered an apostolic link to rap and hip hop in the monologues and poetry he recites during various DC location shoots. Again, the talent is clear to see. Frankly, Scott-Heron could have easily pursued a stand-up comedy career, in the Richard Pryor-George Carlin tradition. Unfortunately, his political commentary is so dated, it is truly painful. Seriously, he offers up chestnuts like Ronald “Ray-Gun,” the actor playing the role of president. From a post-Cold War, Twenty-First Century vantage point, even William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech holds up better.
Fortunately, the music still grooves. Despite his crossover jazz-soul-funk status, Scott-Hero could really swing a band. He also had a sly delivery that suited his hipster-prophet persona quite well. Clearly, the Black Wax concert is the main attraction, but Mugge has a keen eye for ironic backdrops. The wax museum sequences are particularly surreal, in a playful sort of way.
It is a shame Scott-Heron’s demons did not allow him to fully capitalize on his stature as a crossover jazz great in the 1990s and 2000s. Such opportunities might have challenged some of his hard left preconceptions, but they also would have helped spread awareness of his music. Instead, Scott-Heron will largely be remembered as he is seen in Mugge’s film, which makes it a rather important snapshot. A must-see for fans and a good time for anyone with ears for jazz-funk (even with the polemical interruptions), Gil Scott-Heron is now available again from MVD on DVD and BluRay.